Published: 04th April 2021
Forest officials should appreciate that forests cannot function without tribals: IBRAD's Prof SB Roy
Professor SB Roy was speaking at TNIE's E-Expressions along with NC Saxena, a retired IAS officer, Prof Biswajit Dhar from JNU, TNIE's Editorial Director Prabhu Chawla and journalist Kaveree Bamzai
The Forest Department and its officials have to acknowledge that forests cannot function without tribals, said the Indian Institute of Bio-Social Research And Development's (IBRAD) Founder Chairman Professor SB Roy. "The tribal department should understand if there is no sustainable management of the forest, if the tribals do not understand the Acts, the development will not be there. There needs to be periodical monitoring of biodiversity, livelihood and sustainability," he added while speaking at The New Indian Express' webcast series E-Expressions on Saturday. Professor Roy was in conversation with NC Saxena, a retired IAS officer, Professor Biswajit Dhar from Jawaharlal Nehru University, TNIE's Editorial Director Prabhu Chawla and senior journalist Kaveree Bamzai on the topic Sustainable Tribal Development and the Forest Rights Act.
Speaking about the lack of proper implementation of the Forest Rights Act and other similar bits of legislation, he further added, "Every ministry will beat their own drum, what is missing over here is that there is a need for a consolidated effort to view the forest and the tribe as integrated and interdependent bodies. The operational plan is not very clear and each one is beating their own drum thus there is no harmony. What did we learn? In some places, FRA has been implemented very well, like Odisha, some parts of Chhattisgarh, Karnataka, we have to take lessons from these places and understand the factors of success."
Further adding to his point, Professor Dhar spoke about the Biodiversity Act. "It talks about conserving and sustainably using all the biological resources in this country. There is a huge overlap between what's happening in the Forest Act and this one — just not the resources but also the associated knowledge of the resources, it talks about empowering the local communities, gives the powers to manage the resources and have certain control of the usage. It's a bottom-up approach. At the local level there are these biodiversity committees that have statutory powers that lie along with the panchayat raj institution. They are supposed to be set up at every local level but it is not defined as whether it's a village or a block. They are supposed to take stock of the resources available in the region and also the local jurisdiction knowledge that is there. Until recently, these have not been established. Now, the AYUSH Ministry and the Biodiversity Ministry are actually calling the shots as far as the biodiversity management of this country is concerned. There is a huge effort being made to dilute the Biodiversity Act. It's all in the name of facilitating bioresources, while ignoring the resources of the local community. The buzzword today is the ease of doing business. The environment is no one's baby, it goes out of the window, you are only looking at the business aspect," he explained.
Talking about the rights of tribals to use and manage forest land, Saxena spoke about how it is a historical problem and not a recent one. "There has been historical injustice to the adivasis, they had been occupying and using forest lands but during the colonial period, their rights were not recorded. Because of that, they were declared encroachers. Efforts have been made a few times to correct this. In 1996, we got a new law only for Schedule V areas, not all districts fall under that where we said the panchayats and gram sabhas will own the forest lands but this again was not passed. Looking at the non-implementation and policies that we have, we wanted to give power to the gram sabhas in a new law, who are occupying forest lands for generations. They help in management, protection and thus community rights should be given to them. We got it passed by the Rajya Sabha, but when it went to the cabinet it made changes and diluted the law," he explained.
Adding to this, Professor Roy said that it is not possible for any gram sabha to implement the Act as it is now. "The Forest department needs to build the capacity of the gram sabha, preparedness is important. There are several other difficulties and challenges- lack of competency, too much expectation. Gram Sabha is asked to form their own committee to seek expertise, but where will they get that in the villages? In the name of rights, it's too much responsibility, launched without preparedness. Unless there is structure, accountability, monitoring, measurement of outcome in the governance system, no one will function properly," he said.
Finally, TNIE Editorial Director Prabhu Chawla noted that for the last four years the Ministry of Environment has written to states asking for their definition of forests. "Forest has become a business here, not being concerned about the tribals while they should be allowed to use it. Why has the definition of forest still not been made specific in independent India?"
To this, Saxena responded, "Forests are the area that has been registered as forests under the FRA guidelines. It could be barren land, protected land, wildlife habitat, reserve forest and more. We need to make a distinction between what is desirable and what is feasible. It may be desirable that the forest department should be given up, it is not going to happen, we have to live with reality. What is feasible is an increase in the production of minor forest products, improve their access, reduce controls that come in the way of women marketing forest products in the market, have MSP and monitor this. Unfortunately, our civil society and NGOs are focused more on management, the forest department will not give up its management, if they focus on overall production it will be helpful."
In conclusion, Professor Dhar added that local communities have to be empowered, "given the rights they deserve and that the forest officials have to be trained and told that they are supposed to be working for the local communities. This way these communities can prosper and monitor that resources are used in a sustainable manner."